The University of York has produced a guide to Email etiquette and email usage, to encourage staff to think about how they use email. It includes tips on how to use email effectively and it includes links to Getting Started with Gmail on the Google Workspace Learning Center.
Matthew Badham, the Administration Manager for Chemistry talks about how his department acted on its results from the 2017 staff survey. Their results highlighted several concerns around stress and the difficulties of maintaining a healthy work / life balance. Email was identified as a particular source of stress. Matthew has led a project, as part of the Chemistry Google Working Group, to look into how to disseminate good practice around email management.
Interviewer: Matthew welcome thank you for coming along today to talk about your department’s work on email management. Can you tell me a little bit more about your role here at the University.
Matthew: So I'm the Chemistry Administration manager and I am responsible for quite a few administrative staff at the University, one of the things I am responsible for, which I think is quite relevant to our discussion, is for looking after internal communications. So we spend quite a bit of time in the department making sure that we get how things are communicated to different groups, to staff, to students, making sure that we get them right and making sure that we convey messages as clearly as we can.
Interviewer: I understand from our conversations that your department was already in the process of looking at email management within Chemistry, can you tell me a bit more about that process.
Matthew: Yes so it's been quite a long process to arrive at this point but the process effectively started back in May 2017 when the University Staff Survey took place. Now the University Staff Survey is a big thing that happens right across the University, but as a result of the staff survey, individual departments can look at their individual results and then examine some outcomes of the staff survey. In Chemistry, as I'm sure in lots of departments, the staff survey results highlighted some issues around stress and life work balance. Some members of staff reporting long hours of work. One of the outcomes in Chemistry was to specifically identify emails as a source of stress so as part of the follow-up work that the department did on the staff survey an email working group took place which looked specifically at issues around email and then came up with a list of recommendations.
Interviewer: So what type of challenges were you trying to solve?
Matthew: So lots of kind of the standard challenges around email management, everyone obviously has their own approach to emails, emails can generate a lot of stress for people and take up a lot of time and it was just trying to look at some of those kind of things and what we did was we came up with a short list of ten areas in which we were going to try and give some practical advice and that was the point at which the Chemistry Google working group came in. So what we then did was we looked at specific tips that we could give and specific pieces of bite sized advice that people could use especially to use Google technology to manage emails effectively.
Interviewer: So were there any specific Gmail functionalities that were key to this approach?
Matthew: Yes so one of the things that has definitely come out of it is around use of my task which when we started looking at the advice last year was a relatively new piece of functionality. One of the specific feedbacks from the email working group was that it can be a bit of a problem when people use their inbox as a to do list because they end up getting trapped in a cycle of looking through their inbox each day and working through things and effectively reading emails over and over again. So one of the functionalities that Gmail has introduced is the ability to drag and drop a specific email across to your task list ,where you can assign a date and a time for completion, so that means effectively, that you can have a separate task list and then you can file the email away, which then means that you have got rid of an email for now. That’s one specific thing that I know that lots of people were not aware of, so they have started to use that and it has really helped them with their day to day management of email.
Interviewer: Anything else?
Matthew: Matthew: So one of the other things we have definitely done a lot of work around is how to effectively manage your inbox. Just to give you a bit of a wider context. We split the advice that we gave into three sections so we had a lot of advice around time, we also had some advice around organisation and then around composition. Under all of those headings we looked at specific things, so for instance we have given some advice on how to write effective subject lines, another one that has been very popular in terms of this particular initiative has been a piece of work around email signature.
Interviewer:Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Matthew: We noticed a trend recently that some organisations have started encouraging staff to using their email signatures to signal to people their working preferences. So if for instance you are a part time worker it’s a really a good place to let people know perhaps if you work only Monday to Wednesday or at certain times on certain days you can then set an expectation to people about when you will be in the office ,which in turn, helps you to better manage your time when you are out of the office. One of the things we also suggested was that people might like to put in a sentence, we put in a suggested sentence which was something along the lines of whilst I may have received your email please understand that I don’t expect to receive a response to this outside of my working hours. So, if you get an email coming out, that is just a signal to people that you don’t expect them to spend their weekends or evenings responding to emails, that don’t require a response at that stage. And it was really nice to see that that was something that both the departmental manager and the head of department both took up and they have now got them in their email signature which I think is a great kind of signal right from the top of the department that this is a good working practice
Interviewer: Are there any other quick tips that you could give to our listeners?
Matthew: So yes so going back to subject lines, is a a really key one and is one of the things that we are trying to encourage people to think about across the department because the more effectively people can write a subject line, it makes so people can organise their emails and their inboxes….
Interviewer:.And then to find them later…
Matthew: .Exactly, yes to not spend lots of time looking through emails that just say the subject or something quite vague and if you can put something quite specific in the title and perhaps if it gives an indication of whether an action is required or whether this is a read only email for information or even an email that you can also signal if it's just an email that can be read once and then deleted. I think all those things help and I think that if those are the kind of things that require buy in from across the department to start using them and then it becomes common language.
Interviewer: How have your staff responded?
Matthew: So it’s very difficult to gauge response to some of these specific things sometimes. What we have tried to do is share the information as widely as possible. I was invited by the head of department to present to an academic staff meeting and we have also put the advice out in bite sized chunks so we have a staff digest which is a weekly update of things going on in the department and lots of different activities, so we used a section of that to showcase a different piece of advice each week and that’s been a good way of instead of sending people a big long document with lots of advice about emails which I think they probably wouldn’t read its been a good way of splitting the advice and we have noticed that because when we share we then link through to more detailed documents which are Google documents often when we have sent them out on the Friday we have noticed that people are in the documents on Monday morning looking at them and we sometimes get bits of feedback on the documents.
Interviewer:So Matthew have you shared your work in Chemistry across the university?
Matthew: So at the end of last year there was a really good event at the University organised by information services to talk about Google across the University. I actually gave a presentation at that to the administrators that attended and that was on the email work that we’ve done and actually had a really good response not only from the questions I had at the end but several people approached me and came up to me or emailed me following the event asking if they could do a similar thing in their department, subsequently IT services have launched a new set of web pages which are called email etiquette and effective usage and that is really good place of information where, if you were going to try and do a similar thing within your department you can direct people to those pages and they cover lots of the topics we covered in Chemistry around how to use emails more effectively and that’s quite useful because the information is there and it will be updated by IT services like all Google pages and so it is a great resource
Interviewer:: OK that has been great thank you Matthew for talking with us today.
Matthew: You are welcome..
Smart subject lines are the key to spending less time scrolling up and down overfull inboxes - read more here.